On March 16 Governor Gary Herbert signed SB 234, a bill creating an unelected Utah Inland Port Authority to take control of nearly 20,000 acres in the Northwest Quadrant of Salt Lake City.
The move to create a massive industrialized trade hub on undeveloped pastures and Great Salt Lake wetlands took city leaders by surprise. The legislation which passed without hearings and with no opportunity for public debate, makes the City responsible for public safety and street maintenance but lets the Port Authority collect taxes so that there is no revenue to pay for infrastructure.
If that weren’t bad enough, the bill contains language to undermine environmental protections. Under this law, the city would not be able to block transportation of coal or storage of toxic materials. The bill overrides Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant Master Plan, developed through public process and approved by the City in 2016. The Master Plan envisions economic development in the area, but it also recognizes that Great Salt Lake wetlands are an important, environmentally sensitive habitat for migratory birds.
One reason the Northwest Quadrant is not already built out is that much of the area is not suitable for building. Much of it was underwater in the flood year of 1983, and natural hazards include earthquake fault lines and “liquefiable” soil. Nonetheless, all that empty space has proven too tempting for the real estate developers who dominate the Utah Legislature.
This is not the first land grab in the Northwest Quadrant. In 2015, the Utah Legislature forced Salt Lake City to accept a new $860 million state prison site near the Salt Lake City International Airport. The move opened up valuable property near Draper for development. Alliance for a Better Utah noted an apparent conflict of interest since real estate developers in the Legislature were particularly behind the prison move. (A commission to sell the former prison property has now been formed, so we’ll see who gets that windfall.)
At the time, the Salt Lake City Council issued a statement opposing prison relocation which noted, “Salt Lake City has been very cautious in planning its northwest quadrant. The balance of potential for development and the need for preservation of important wetlands is delicate. Dropping a 5,000-person prison in this area is the polar opposite of the careful planning that Salt Lake City has done to date.” Unfortunately, it seems that careful, environmentally sensitive planning for the lake floodplain is precisely what the Utah Legislature intends to undermine. The Salt Lake City Council has already canceled existing development agreements due to uncertainty. Governor Herbert says he will call a special session of the legislature to address concerns over the Inland Port bill.
The responsible thing would have been for the governor to veto this bad piece of legislation, but it’s too late for that.
Salt Lake City NW Quadrant Master Plan: slcdocs.com/Planning/Projects/NorthwestQ/NWQ.pdf